Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ten Things You May Have Forgotten About Babe Ruth and Why He's Still the Best

I can clearly remember the first time I heard about Babe Ruth; remember it just like it was yesterday.

I was three years old; or maybe four; could have been five. My father sat me down and showed me an article in a sports magazine that had just arrived in the mail. I think it was Sports Illustrated; might have been Sport. He showed me pictures of the famous Bambino and told me all the stories: how he had been a pitcher and then switched to the outfield because he was such a great hitter, how he hit more home runs than anyone ever had or ever would; and, most of all, how he had called his shot in the World Series. I was hooked, forever convinced that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a baseball player comparable to the Babe. I remember it just like it was yesterday.

Or maybe the day before yesterday.

Most baseball fans of a certain generation have a similar story in their memory banks, sort of a sports coming-of-age moment, when they first learned of the mighty deeds of Babe Ruth. Thereafter, we tend to feel that we know everything there is to know about him. The problem is that, like my own recall, sometimes we forget a few of the details.

I am always amused when people try to come up with excuses for why someone other than Babe Ruth may be baseball's all-time greatest player. I think the feeling of complete knowledge in the face of a faulty memory contributes to this. To me, it's a worthless intellectual exercise to even consider that anyone else is superior. There really is no discussion. No one else is even close. As a player or as a personality, the Babe was just that much better. It's unfortunate, however, that the newer generation may occasionally believe impostors with their fancy statistics and new-age reasoning.

I have always felt that any statistical analysis that doesn't start with Babe Ruth being the greatest is, by definition, seriously and fatally flawed and worth about as much as the romper the guy was probably wearing at the time he came up with it.

Here are a few reasons why I love Babe Ruth and things about him you probably know, but may have forgotten:

1) The Babe was a man totally without pretense or guile. He made no attempt to portray himself as anything other than what he was. Sure, his legend was partly the creation of a very astute business manager who was decades ahead of his time in the marketing business, and the Babe may have had a few habits that might be looked down upon in certain quarters of civilized society, but he was essentially a true character. He rarely tried to hide his habits or apologize for them. We were never forced to witness the Babe visibly shrinking in front of a jury or Congress, groveling and mumbling lame excuses, not-talking-about-the-past, wagging his finger in arrogant mockery of his accusers, suddenly forgetting how to speak English, or defiantly lying about his actions to save his miserable butt. I believe, given similar circumstances, the Babe probably would have borrowed a line from Popeye and asserted, "I yam what I yam." And the public would have understood.

2) He never tried to impress people who he thought were important and he never resorted to namedropping to try to impress anyone else. Everyone was the same in the Babe's eyes--a "kid" or a "dame," he treated them all the same. When he met the top man in the free world, the Babe confidently looked him right in the eye and said, "Hot as hell ain't it Prez."

Once, he was invited to attend a Gatsbian party at a swanky place in Manhatten. The next day he told pitcher Waite Hoyt how much fun he had at the party, with "guys with green vests and plaid vests and tails on their coats," serving an endless supply of champagne and of jumping and splashing in the huge fountain.

"Where was this?" Hoyt asked finally.

Somewhere in the city--the Babe wasn't exactly certain where--but "there was a dame named Mrs. Vanderbilt" who was the hostess. The "dame" named Vanderbilt was New York City's leading socialite and the site of the party had been her famous mansion at 58th Street and 5th Avenue--at the time called the grandest mansion in the city, know to everyone in America. Everyone, that is, except the Babe.

3) The Babe didn't worry about politically correct niceties. Not that he had any malice, he just didn't think about it. Once while helping New Yorker Al Smith stump for the Presidency, the Babe was speaking on a radio show with teammate Tony Lazzeri, who was of Italian heritage. "Tell me Tony," Babe said into the microphone, "who are the wops going to vote for this year."

4) He wasn't just a pitcher before he switched to the outfield, he was a great pitcher who could lay legitimate claim to the best lefthander of his era. People forget just how great a pitcher the Babe was. Consider:

He never had a losing season as a pitcher.

His lifetime ERA was 2.28. That puts him 17th on the all-time list (of pitchers with more than 1000 innings pitched).

He had a lifetime record of 94-46. That's a .671 winning percentage--which places him 11th on the all-time list.

He topped 300 innings pitched in a season twice (for pitch-count fanatics, he threw 323 in 1916 as a 21-year-old).

From 1915 to 1918 he put together a four-year run that rivals Sandy Koufax at his best, and Babe was much younger. When he was 23 years old, he already owned a career record of 80-41 with a 2.09 ERA.

He threw nine shutouts in 1916--a league record for lefties that was unmatched until Ron Guidry threw nine in 1978.

His 14-inning victory in Game 2 of the 1916  World Series for Boston remains the longest single-game effort by a pitcher in World Series history. With modern bullpens and pitch counts, that's one that will most likely never be broken.

The Babe had a run of 29 scoreless innings pitched in World Series play, a record that stood for 42       years, until broken by Whitey Ford.

He was 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA in 3 World Series starts.

Had Babe Ruth finished his career as a pitcher, he would have made the Hall of Fame at that position. He was one of the best pitchers during an era of pitching domination and then became the best hitter during an era of hitting domination. The only comparison for modern fans to comprehend would be if Clayton Kershaw decided next year that he was going to play outfield. To make the comparison correct though we would have to pretend that Kershaw had pitched in the postseason like he has in the regular season, which has not happened. And, oh yeah, Kershaw would need to hit 45 home runs--each year for the next 15 years.

5) Babe Ruth was not a slow fat guy for most of his career. In the 1921 World Series, he stole second and third base in the same inning. He stole as many as 17 bases in a season twice and had 123 for his career. He hit double digit triples four times and had 136 for his career. That's a lot of running, not just trotting, around the bases.

6) He did not use a diet of hot dogs, beer and women to stay healthy. Although he did more than his share of damage with all three, he was actually one of the first professional athletes to have a personal trainer. After his disastrous 1925 season, marked by the "bellyache" heard 'round the world, he hooked up with a former boxer who had a sort of gym for the stars in New York. Thereafter Babe worked out regularly during the winter months for the rest of his career and even took some dietary advice. This more than anything resulted in his remarkable performance into his late 30s which was decidedly unusual in that era.

7) The Babe holds up well to nerds. Babe was tops in Moneyball stats decades before Billy Beane was even a glimmer in the eye of Brad Pitt. He is baseball's all-time leader in OPS, on-base percentage plus slugging, and just in case you think he was artificially aided by his ballpark or the times he is the leader in OPS+ which accounts for that sort of thing.

WAR, wins above replacement, is the current stat de jour among the intelligentsia. A seasonal WAR of 10.0 or better is considered superlative and has been bettered just 56 times in recorded history. Babe Ruth did it nine of those times. He has the top two WAR seasons in baseball history with a 14.0 in 1923 and 12.9 in 1921, is tied for the third highest, occupies six of the top 12 spots and has the highest career WAR. However, rather than justify the Babe, these facts, in my mind, only justifiy OPS, OPS+ and WAR as valid measures of greatness (see above).

8) Babe didn't just usher in an era of home runs, or thrive in an era when everyone was hitting them, capitalizing on a new rabbit ball and small parks--he completely revolutionized the game and dominated all his peers. In 1920 he homered more than every team except two. While some of his run, RBI and batting average totals were certainly influenced by playing in the batting average-happy 1920s, the home run totals are a different matter.

A good measure of how much above the norm a player was is to compare him to other players of the time, who played with the same ball and in the same parks. In the history of baseball, a hitter getting more than 10 % of the entire league's total of home runs has been accomplished ten times. Gavvy Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies did it in 1915 when he hit 24 of the National League's 225 (10.7%). Babe Ruth did it the other nine times, beginning in 1918 when he hit 11 of the leagues's 97 home runs (11.3%) while playing in only 95 games, 20 of them as a pitcher (13-7). As he led the league in home runs in 12 of the next 14 years, Babe had seasons such as 1920 when he hit 54 of the league's 370 homers (14.6%). For comparison, when Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, the National League had 2952. This gave Bonds 2.4 %. To equal 10%, Bonds would have needed to hit 296. Since there were 16 teams in Bonds' league in 2001, compared to 8 in 1920, without breaking out the slide rule we can say that, allowing for the extra teams, Bonds would have still needed to hit about 150 to have a comparable slice of the league's total. Still a pretty big task.

9) Contrary to his occasional remark to the press that "I always swing hard just in case I make contact," Babe was far from the modern home run-or-strike out guy. While he did strikeout more than was the norm for his time, it was not dramatically so--and nowhere close to the drastic difference in his home run total and the rest of baseball. He never struck out more than 100 times in any season. His most was 93 in 1923. In 1931, as an old man, he struck out a mere 51 times in 534 at bats, less than one in ten. He did lead the league in strikeouts five times, but the record when he started was 120 and 100 had been topped eight times by 1918. When he led the league in 1927 with 89, Lou Gehrig was a close second with 84. Babe currently ranks 121st on the all-time strike out list, just behind Dean Palmer, Gorman Thomas and Ellis Burks.

10) Babe knew how to rise to the occasion.  In addition to his early pitching heroics, on the offensive side, he twice hit three home runs in one World Series game. While the 3 home runs have been matched now 3 times, no one has ever come close to doing it twice.

He played in ten World Series, won seven. During those Series he hit 15 home runs in 129 at bats and had a lifetime Series batting average of .326. The average should be viewed with the knowledge that he was 1-for-11 in his first three World Series with Boston when he was a pitcher.

Boston had been in three World Series in the Babe's first four years and never won another pennant for 86 years. The Yankees had never won a pennant in their existence, but won seven in 12 years after getting Babe.

He hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium, the house that he built of course, and the first home run in the first All-Star game.

Perhaps the best way to explain Babe Ruth to modern fans is to say that he was "the Babe Ruth of baseball." Nothing more needs to be said.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Big Red Machine Takes the Field Again for Pete Rose Ceremony

Excuse me while I turn back into a ten-year old. I can't help it. It happened to a lot of middle aged baseball fans in Cincinnati this weekend.

It was Pete Rose Statue weekend at the Great American Ballpark. Everyone from the starting lineup of the 1975-76 World Champs was there with the exception of centerfielder Cesar Geronimo who lives in the Dominican Republic. Jack Billingham was there to represent the oft-overlooked, but extremely valuable pitchers, along with utility infielder Doug Flynn and former teammates Leo Cardenas, Tommy Helms and manager Dave Bristol.

Upon taking the stage, Rose told the cheering crowd, "Go ahead, you're not going to make me cry." He thanked sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, who had spoken earlier, but added, "You went on so long, 193 people passed out from the heat while you were talking."

He turned serious and told fans, "All those years, you motivated me." He talked about the proud tradition of Cincinnati-grown baseball players, Bill Doran, Dave Parker, Ron Oester and Buddy Bell. He could have included Don Zimmer, Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Larkin and Joe Nuxhall. "All those guys had one thing in common, they all busted their asses on the field."

After telling the crowd, "I love these guys up here," Rose proceeded to show his love in his unique way--with insults: "I met Tony Perez in 1960 at Geneva, New York. I was 2 days out of Western Hills high school here in Cincinnati and he was 3 months out of Cuba. I've known him for 57 years. I was just talking to him back there and I still have no idea what he's saying."

Concepcion: "Because Davey lives in Venezuela we don't know how long he's gonna be around."

He pointed to his teammates, "Up here you've got the greatest catcher in the history of the game, the greatest second baseman in the history of the game, Tony, the greatest Cuban player in history." He looked at Griffey, "Griff, I'm not going to say you were even the greatest player from Donora, Pennsylvania because your kid was born there. Stan Musial wasn't bad either."

Rose thanked baseball owners. "We need to thank all the owners. Because if it wasn't for them we wouldn't get to play. But owners should know that if we were playing today, I would break the damn bank. So would Johnny and Joe and Tony."

In a later Q & A session, Rose and Bench said they had settled their publicized differences and later joked about their failed joint business ventures in a car dealership and bowling alley in the early '70s.

Yes, Pete Rose has committed transgressions and will likely continue to pay for them. But every time he makes an appearance at the Great American Ball Park, the Reds' owners can count on a sellout and Saturday was no exception--the largest crowd since Opening Day.

Out of town writers sometimes seem baffled when they discuss the city's love affair with Pete Rose. Sure, he's the ultimate home town sandlot kid who made good and he played the game with an enthusiasm and passion matched by few players in history. But it's also the team that the fans come to see and celebrate; the unique, wildly successful, entertaining team; a collection of superstars that we know could never be assembled in the modern game.

It was an era in which star players could be counted on to remain with their team for a decade or more. Fans knew their personalities and quirks; saw them around town, just like normal people. And it was such a fun team to watch--they were never out of any game until the last out. We are from a generation of kids who ran to get the newspaper every morning before breakfast to check the box scores; who found seemingly all of our team's players atop the Sunday stats; who listened to Joe and Marty regularly on the radio, hearing "And this one belongs to the Reds," not every single night, but at  least a hundred times a year, and sometimes even more; who watched our team of stars--true superstars--play through the postseason seemingly every single year. We were spoiled as kids--we had no idea it wouldn't always be that way. So now we jump at the chance to remember them again.

It didn't take long Saturday for the decades to melt away--suddenly it was 1975 all over again with family trips to Riverfront Stadium, that space-aged round concrete and plastic-grassed giant that once stood just a few hundred yards away; where crowds of 50,000 or more gathered to watch great baseball. Where six bucks got you a blue seat--the best seats in the place.

 These men on the stage were no longer in their 70s, but were once again great young athletes in polyester beltless uniforms ruling the sport world.

A collection of men who won four pennants and five National League MVP Awards in seven years

Joe Morgan was not a frail man who has battled severe health problems the past year, hobbling on two crutches, being helped to his seat by teammates Billingham and Concepcion, but a cocky little guy with big side burns and an even bigger grin, flapping his back arm at the plate in that unmistakeable batting stance, drawing a walk late in a game, taking a huge lead off first and stealing second, even though everyone in the place knew he would.

Dave Concepcion wasn't gray-headed with a receding hairline, but was an impossibly skinny acrobatic kid whose physique at his first spring training prompted Rose to remark, "That guy doesn't need to worry about pulling a muscle, he doesn't have one;" ranging far to his right to spear a grounder in the hole and throwing a one-hopper off the turf to first.

There's Johnny Bench, driving in runs, showing off that glorious right arm, daring opposing teams to try it.

And Tony Perez, seemingly content to be the unsung hero behind the scenes, allowing room for the other big egos, but always coming through when it counted in the late innings.

Jack Billingham, unjustly ignored like all Big Red Machine pitchers, but finishing his career with a World Series ERA that is still the second best in history--just a notch better than two guys named Sandy and Babe.

And Foster and Griffey, power and speed, stars in their own right.

And, of course, Pete, charging around second base without slowing, helmet and hair flying, then launching himself horizontally and arriving in a cloud of dust.

They will live forever in the collective memory of their fans, and now in bronze outside the park.

Overall, it was a fun day. It was good to see all the players once more, to reminisce about the glory years, and to be ten years old again. Just for a while.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Putting the Memories in the Memorabilia Business

Hey gang,
It's your intrepid sports reporter Jacques Niffer back with another exclusive.

I've been hearing some disturbing rumors the past few years about the amount of fraud that's taking place in the memorabilia business. With that in mind, I decided to go undercover for an investigative, first-hand look at the underbelly of the business. I recently attended a national baseball memorabilia show, disguised as a gullible nerd. Let's roll the tape:

JN: This looks like a good place to start. This guy bills himself as Mr. Nearmint and seems to have a little bit of everything. Excuse me, sir.

MN: (with his back turned, shuffling through a stack of photos) Yea, whadduya want?

JN: I couldn't help noticing your fine collection. I'm a longtime baseball fan and I've got a lot of money to spend.

MN: (immediately turning, smiling broadly) Well, why dincha say so? You've come to the right place.

JN: I've heard you can't be too careful. That some dealers are less than reputable.

MN: You're right about that. You gotta watch some of these guys. But, hey, nobody's got more repute than yours truly. What are ya interested in?

JN: I like just about everything. I love staying in touch with the game through spending large amounts of money on seemingly insignificant items that remind me of my childhood heroes. Stuff that will probably sit in my closet only to be gotten out a few times a year when I want to show off for someone who will either not be interested or will hate my guts out of jealousy.

 MN: I know just whacha mean. Why I fell in love with baseball when I was a kid. I played shortstop  on my reform school team. I was the leadoff hitter; stole more than 20 bases. And twice that many hubcaps. And, hey, this business is really all about the kids.

MN: (turning around, interrupted by a 10-year-old with greased-back hair wearing a leather jacket): Where the hell you been Vinnie? I need your stuff. I'm trying to run a business here.

Kid: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I told ya I'd have 'em finished today didn't I?  Here's the whole stack of those autographed pictures you wanted.

MN: Did you spell the names right this time?

Kid:  Where's that C-note you promised me?

MN: (Reaches in his pocket and pulls out a wad of rumpled bills and peels one off). Here, now beat it, ya little shit.

(turns back to JN)  Now where were we. Oh yeah, the kids. That's what baseball's all about, right? But back to you. I can tell you're a man with a nose for a good deal. I got something you should be interested in. Just came in this morning. I heard some guys talking about the time Mickey Mantle sent a box of crap to a dealer who was always bugging him for stuff.

JN: He sent him a box of stuff like balls and bats?

MN: No, literally his crap. He meant it as an insult but the guy saved it and now it's worth a lot of dough.

JN: So that pile is worth a pile now.

MN: Huh? Anyways, I got to thinking and had one of my associates to dig up this. (Proudly pulls out a small tupperware dish containing a dark brown blob). It's Babe Ruth's.

JN: (trying to keep from gagging) Babe Ruth? But it looks like it's still steaming.

MN: No, no, that's just from the air conditioning in here. This is the real poop, if you know what I mean.

JN: How do we know it's from Babe Ruth?

MN: Look there's a little chunk of hot dog in there. Everybody knows how much the Babe loved hot dogs. Right?

JN: Impressive, but, I think I'll let that pass.

MN: I'm telling you, this won't lay here for long. This is the sort of stuff that moves quick. Somebody's gonna sniff this out and scoop it up and later this is gonna be worth a load. I'm telling ya, the sales of this stuff will wipe out everything else.

JN: Do you really think it'll go for that much?

MN: Well, if it's not the most valuable thing in here it's a solid number two.

JN: Thanks anyway. What else do you have?

MN: (Looks around and picks up a pair of shoes) Well how about these? These here shoes were the ones Joe Jackson never wore.

JN: A pair of pennyloafers?

MN: That's right. These were never worn by Joe. That's why they called him Shoeless Joe. Must be worth a fortune but I'll letcha have 'em for a hundred bucks.

JN: (pointing to a row of jerseys) What about that uniform jersey?

MN: Now this here is an official game-worn jersey from Ted Williams. Wore it all through the year in 1941. And if you know yer history you know that was the year he hit .400. No tellin' what this will be worth in a few years.

JN: (holding the jersey close) But it's made of polyester.

MN: (leans close and makes a fist) What about it?

JN: Um, well, I'll bet it was comfortable. (Pointing to a stack of photos).  You know this autographed picture of Ty Cobb looks interesting. But it looks like it was signed with a Sharpie. Did they have those back then?

MN: Of course. Everybody knows they was invented in 1903 by, um, Leopold Sharpie.

JN: Hmmm. What can you tell me about that Joe DiMaggio bat?

MN: I can see you've got a good eye. This even comes with a picture of Joe hisself signing it for me. Makes it worth twice as much.

JN: (inspecting the picture)  It looks like an old ad for Mr. Coffee with a polaroid of you holding a bat taped on to it. And I thought DiMaggio only had one M.

MN: What are you trying to say?

JN: Nothing, nothing. But  I was told I should get a Certificate of Authenticity with anything, you know, to make sure I don't get cheated.

MN: (stops smiling) A what?

JN: You know, some sort of guarantee.

MN: You want a guarantee? (grabs a piece of paper and starts scribbling)  Here, it says,"I hearby swear that if you think anything you get from me is a friggin' cheat, I guarantee I'll personally break your friggin' face." How's that?

JN: (running down the hall, being chased by Mr. Nearmint): Looks like that's all the time we have for today, fans. And remember, the baseball memorabilia business is an honest as the day is long. Have fun collecting.